The Egregiously Overlooked

While I have seen my fair share of theatre in 2013, work and life managed to get in the way of my blogging. These are three productions that meant a great deal to me, and I felt compelled in these waning days of December (now that work is on the back-burner for a spell) to write about them.

She Loves Me (6/23/13, Caramoor). One of the most charming musicals ever written turned 50 this year. Ideally, this landmark event would have meant a full-scale Broadway revival, but instead it was the classy Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah who did the honors. The celebrated concert venue, which I had never been to before, presented a semi-staged concert of the original ’63 version, with an ideal cast, glorious musicianship and charm to spare. Joe Masteroff’s libretto is a model of economy, taste and charm, and Bock and Harnick’s score is tops – particular the string of second act showstoppers that I call the “eleven o’clock stretch.” Santino Fontana and Alexandra Silber, whom I had seen previously this year in the Collegiate Chorale’s classy concert of the ludicrous Song of Norway, were ideally cast.  Silber brings extraordinary intelligence to her acting, which complements and informs her lovely singing. Fontana should top any and all casting lists if a Broadway revival of this show were to happen; his performance was practically perfect.  The twosome were assisted by all-stars: John Cullum, Ryan Silverman, Brad Oscar, and Jonathan Freeman (reprising his Tony-nominated turn as the droll waiter), to name a few. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s played Don Walker’s delectable period arrangements. It was heaven on earth for 2 1/2 hours. I hope we can expect future delights at Caramoor.

The Assembled Parties (7/23/13, Friedman Theatre). Richard Greenberg’s strong, compelling play about an affluent Jewish family on decline left me with much to contemplate and several performances to savor. We were introduced to a troubled family with many secrets, led by the kind, open-hearted Julie (an astonishing Jessica Hecht) in the first act. Act two fast forwards 20 years with the many family members since deceased, and the matriarch approaching death. Nothing particularly earth-shattering or flashy happens over the course of the play, but the characters are compelling, and Greenberg leaves many questions raised by the first act left unanswered in the second – which adds to the complexity of the family and its members. One of the most striking aspects of the play was the relationship between Julie and her lovably gruff sister-in-law Faye (Tony-winning Judith Light). It feels rare in a contemporary play to see two female characters who share a deep loving bond and genuinely enjoy each other’s company – without feeling cloying, overly sentimental or saccharine.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (7.25 & 8.23.13, Golden Theatre). Hilarious, unexpectedly moving and surprising, this Christopher Durang play contained many delectable references and parallels to Chekhov, but was its own play, brought to life in a vibrant production. I saw this Tony winner twice. The first time with Sigourney Weaver and the second time with her replacement Julie White. Camps have been divided on the two portrayals of narcissistic movie star Masha, and the two performances couldn’t possibly have been more different. I liked both quite a bit. Weaver played her with a madcap Durang-ian sensibility, but grounded her affectingly in the final minutes of the play. White was more naturalistic throughout, with some killer line deliveries. David Hyde Pierce was exceptional as droll, peace-keeping Vanya, who tored the house down with his nostalgia-tinged Chekhovian meltdown in Act Two. Billy Magnussen was fearless as Masha’s dim boy-toy Spike, a would-be actor who is simultaneously endearing and repellent. Shalita Grant stole every scene as pseudo-psychic cleaning lady Cassandra.

However, the best performance in the play and quite possibly of my theatergoing year, was Kristine Nielsen as Sonia, the frumpy, self-pitying adopted sister who is prone to mood swings. Nielsen’s uproarious Maggie Smith impression would have been worth the price of admission were it not for her stunning phone call in the second act. After having spent most of the evening leaving us  from laughter, Nielsen brought about pin-drop silence as she took a phone call from a would-be suitor asking her on a date. We held our collective breath as Sonia awkwardly stumbled through the call; reluctant but eager, trying to say the right thing and working up the courage to say yes, when it would be so characteristic of her to say no. I wish Vanya had been open-ended; I would have been in and out of the Golden many, many more times.

Quote of the Day: ‘At Large’ Elsewhere…

From Peter Filichia’s Diary on 10.10.08:

Kevin Daly did Encores! a favor by casting Darling of the Day for them. Now all that Encores! has to do is do the show. Daly wisely chose David Hyde Pierce as Priam Farll, Victoria Clark as Alice Challice, Judy Kaye as Lady Vale, and Gavin Lee as Alfie. I’m interested; aren’t you? Hope the powers-that-be at City Center are listening.

It’s an honor and a joy…

I did four shows in one week. I think that could be a personal record. August on Tony Sunday. Gypsy first post-Tony. Then Friday evening I took in the Roundabout revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Sunday afternoon Curtains.

When I go to the theatre alone, it’s very much a gamble the sort of audience experience I will have. I was most fortunate that my mezzanine seat was traded in for a center orchestra spot. I had the most wonderful conversation with a very classy, middle-aged couple who love the theater immensely and go as often as they can, whether together or alone. We discussed everything about the current season, the Tonys, what we were most looking forward to the coming year. It was akin to our blogger brunches, deep common bond stemming from a genuine enjoyment of the live theatre experience. I greatly enjoyed my twenty minutes spent with this witty, urbane couple prior to the show. Plus the engaging 15 minutes intermission (I was asked if I wanted anything from the bar. God, I love manners).

Then the houselights dimmed and the curtain came up on Ms. Laura Linney looking resplendent in period costumes and a surprisingly drab set. (Roundabout, you gave Old Acquintance an applause worthy second act set, you had to skimp on an opulent period production?) Les Liaisons, which first played Broadway in 1987 with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan (that must have been some production) is adapted from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos by Christopher Hampton. My connection with the story goes back to an 18th century literature course I took in college. Truth be told, I didn’t care for it when I read it, studied it or when we watched the 1988 film adaptation of Hampton’s play Dangerous Liaisons with all its Oscar nominated glory and Glenn Close. This let to some trepidation from me upon spending the money to see the show, but I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to see Laura Linney onstage. That was the sole reason for going.

The current production is decidedly uneven. Clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, it makes for a rather long evening. And though she proved fascinating to watch on stage and was giving 110%, Linney felt miscast as the Marquise de Merteuil. The reason to see it surprisingly enough turns out to be English actor Ben Daniels in his Broadway debut as Valmont. The word that springs to mind most to describe him onstage would be fearless. An engaging, witty and foppish presence, the play loses steam whenever he isn’t around. (The audience gasped en masse when he dropped his robe in the forced seduction scene). The scenes he has with Linney are the most interesting and compelling, everything else feels like waste. Mamie Gummer (aka Meryl Streep’s daughter) is making her Broadway debut as the virginal Cecile and Sian Philips has the choice supporting role of Madame de Rosemonde. Well, actually the entire supporting cast was underwhelming. I couldn’t help but think how interesting this story would be as a mere two-hander, akin to the style of the original novel. I was glad for the opportunity to see the two actors, but I still don’t like it.

Things were much more entertaining at Curtains. Now, for whatever reasons (financial or otherwise) I’d held off on seeing the Kander and Ebb musical, though my desire to see it was never in question from the first announcement of its out of town tryout. I saw the original cast of Spamalot the week before the Tonys, and I thought David Hyde Pierce was the most Tony worthy of the three stars, yet the only one overlooked for a nomination! His “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” was a colossal showstopper, and he proved himself a successful – if unlikely – musical comedy star.

Curtains isn’t a perfect musical comedy. There are incredible flaws, but I’m assuming that stems from the unfortunate fact that both bookwriter Peter Stone and lyricist Fred Ebb passed away while the musical was still in development. While John Kander continued the project, bringing Rupert Holmes on board to finish. The story is a murder mystery set at the Colonial Theatre during the out of town tryout of a 1959 musical. The leading lady, who is atrocious, is killed during her curtain call and everyone in the company is kept in the theatre while the affable Detective Cioffi, a big theatrephile alternately solves the crime and helps turn the show into a hit. There is a great deal of charm and heart to the show, which is probably why I admired it. The book’s structure could have used some work, especially the first twenty minutes or so. Also, there were issues to be had with some of the lyrics – mostly in the show-within-a-show’s songs. In particular, the big production number “Thataway,” the word “bitch” or the lyrics “what’s that stirring in my pants” are two lyrics that would never have been considered for a stage musical, especially in 1959 Boston (where things were too often banned for being too salacious). (It has to be Rupert Holmes contribution as Kander and Ebb would have been aware of what would fly and what wouldn’t).

David Hyde Pierce provided the lone upset at the 2007 Tony awards with his win over Raul Esparza (much to the chagrin of many Company enthusiasts). Truth be told, I enjoy a good upset, so it made me almost hit the floor when Bernadette Peters shouted out his name as the winner. You could also tell that he was just equally shocked through his extraordinarily gracious and humble acceptance. His performance was stellar; a musical comedy turn that was funny, offbeat and surprisingly touching. Plus, he had one of the most convincing Boston accents I’ve ever heard. Karen Ziemba was everything I wanted her to be and more – a winning performer giving her all. And at 50, she shows no signs of slowing down or aging. Seriously, the woman looks like she’s in her late 30s, early 40s. And dances like she’s 20. “Thataway” stopped the show. Debra Monk was out, but Patty Goble was on, giving a strong performance as the ballsy producer Carmen Bernstein, reminiscent of a broad Andrea Martin. Jason Danieley’s tenor soared on the lovely “I Miss the Music.” Noah Racey and Megan Sikora were superlative dancers. Edward Hibbert got the best lines and the most laughs from his wry lines as the flamboyantly acerbic British director. Erin Davie has yet to shirk off her Little Edie-isms, and that distracted from her performance. I think out of the score, the only song that felt like a total dud was “The Woman’s Dead.” It wasn’t funny, it didn’t work and only provided amusement in conductor David Loud’s reprise “The Man is Dead” at the top of the second act. Aside from that, “Show People,” “Music,” “It’s a Business” – it was a tuneful musical comedy score. I haven’t been able to get the infectious melody for “Thataway” out of my head.

The production was solid. Great orchestrations, clever choreography and good staging. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Destry Rides Again when looking at the scenes from Robbin’ Hood. (A western musical on Broadway in 1959, yeah, it was bound to happen). It felt like I was watching a Golden Age show. Not necessarily one of the top-tier, but a solid B musical. For a contemporary musical comedy it was especially wonderful in that it wasn’t overtly tongue in cheek or self-referential, which has become the norm these days. It wasn’t perfect, I readily admit that. But if it provides a genuine, grin-inducing, feel-good experience, who cares? After leaving the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (last time I was there it was the Martin Beck), I couldn’t help but be pleased that in a few years this show will reach the high school realm. For educational theatre, particularly on the high school level, it will provide a great male lead for those unlikely to be considered for similar roles in classic titles. The show closes this coming Sunday, so hurry if you can.

While I didn’t make any acquaintances at the Hirschfeld, on the train ride home, I encountered an elderly couple that had attended Chicago. The cue was “I hear Gypsy is excellent.” Of course I had to corroborate their source. It led to an engaging conversation that lasted for the entire train ride. Again, the common bond was the love of the theatre. The husband recalled his first Broadway experience, which was the original production of The Diary of Anne Frank with Joseph Schildkraut. The wife immediately one-upped him by recounting her experience seeing The King and I with Gertrude Lawrence. She even went on to tell how the night she went, the Queen of the Netherlands was in attendance, making it all the more special for her. When I mentioned that I wished I was there, she told me ‘You’re young. When you’re older, you’ll hear the same thing from the younger generations when you tell them you’re story. It evolves like that and that is part of what makes it so special.”

And I think with those sage words, I bid you a good night!